Inside Education asks: What is “Digital Learning”?

Dear Commons Community,

Those of us who try to keep up with technology are well aware that every so many years a company selling a product, a professional organization promoting an approach or an individual coining a phrase, comes up with a “new” name to depict something that has been around for a while.  In yesterday’s edition of Inside Education, Mark Lieberman has a fine article exploring the term “digital learning.”  A number of professionals (yours truly included) in the field of instructional technology were asked for their opinions about the definition, origin and future of “digital learning.”  Mark established that the term attempts to include the plethora of instructional technologies:

“Our definition of “digital learning” contains within it numerous similar phrases: Distance learning. Online learning. Blended learning. Hybrid learning. Multimodal learning. Mixed-mode learning. Distributed learning. Technology-enabled learning. Technology-enhanced learning.

The article indicates that the term’s origins are a bit hazy and references several individuals:

“Digital learning” entered mainstream discourse in higher education sometime in the last five to seven years, most observers agree.

Ken Hartman, former president of Drexel University Online, believes its roots stretch to the advent of personal computers in the 1980s, when software programs like Reader Rabbit purported to transform the learning experience for young children.

Anthony Picciano first recalls seeing the modern context for the term in the 2013 book The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education, by Frank McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter. Though most people interviewed for this article couldn’t pinpoint how “digital learning” grew prominent in the higher education discourse, several pointed to grants a few years ago from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that catalyzed numerous projects under the digital learning umbrella.

“It represents a broad set of possibilities in terms of approaches and methods and resources that enable innovative approaches to instruction and facilitate learning,” said Eric Fredericksen, associate vice president of online learning at the University of Rochester.

Most people interviewed for this article said they like the term “digital learning” to encompass the disparate areas of innovation happening over all in the higher education classroom. Those who take issue with the term haven’t identified an obvious successor, though they think eventually the reference to “digital” will be too narrow.

The article summarizes its future as:

I think over time, terms and how we look through things with a historical lens can evolve, but as long as we’re always focusing on learning, that’s probably most important.”  said Eric Fredericksen.

Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University, thinks the term “digital learning” is already on the verge of being outdated, given that most traditional classrooms use some form of digital technology.

“How are we using these tools to enhance the things that we care about? How are we reducing inequities? How are we improving success and outcomes?” Rascoff said. “We’ll figure out what the right tools are as a second-order question for how to solve those problems.”

Elizabeth Ciabocchi, vice provost for digital learning and executive director of online learning and services at St. John’s University, in New York, sees some room to grow before erasing “digital” from the vocabulary is feasible. More traditional institutions like hers are still adjusting to new and shifting paradigms, she said.

Picciano, meanwhile, wonders whether the term is simply too broad to last as anything more than a vague allusion to an abstract phenomenon. He thinks “online learning” and “blended learning” have attained a foothold in the discourse that “digital learning” hasn’t yet reached.

The term’s fate rests in part on its frequent users, like Ciabocchi, who sees explaining the meaning behind her job title as part of her duties in the years to come.”

Well-done article and worth a read for those of us involved with “learning.”


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